De-Colonial Dialogues: Migration, Sexual Exploitation, and Human Trafficking

Venezuelan alternative media outlet Alba TV looks at xenophobia, migration myths, and the realities of sex trafficking.


During the COVID-19 pandemia, grassroots movements, researchers and activists have increasingly shared their insights into the social or economic dynamics that once again have impacted on exploited bodies and some of the world’s more precarious sectors.

As such, Alba TV’s online workshop series De-colonial Dialogues brought together a number of perspectives from the global South from June 10 to 17. Included on the virtual panels were Maria Fernanda Barreto, Daniella Inojosa and Luis Navas, who discussed issues including migration, sexual exploitation and human trafficking in Latin America.

Maria Fernanda Barreto: Migration, xenophobia and the pandemia in Colombia and Venezuela

On July 10, Maria Fernanda Barreto, a Colombian migrant and researcher living in Venezuela, delivered her presentation Migration, Xenophobia and the Pandemia in Colombia and Venezuela.

She argued that the Colombian oligarchy currently aims, in its discourse, to pit the Colombian people against the Venezuelan migrant population, and to subject the latter to high levels of exploitation.

“In times of revolution, migration management has been used as a weapon of war. The Colombian oligarchy has moved on from talking about refugees to adopt a discourse promoting competition between the Colombian people and the poor migrant population which is unable to regularise its status,” she said.

Barreto, who is a Colombo-Venezuelan dual citizen, also noted that obtaining [official] figures for migration levels between Colombia and Venezuela is complex given that the border is regularly transited both via official checkpoints and by way of illegal crossings known as trochas.

In addition, she explained that “throughout the twentieth century, there have been migratory waves driven by forced displacement, in which 8 million Colombians migrated. Today there are approximately 5 million Colombians living in Venezuela.”

She also noted that the migration issue had been manipulated for political purposes to discredit the Bolivarian process, fuel the media war and finance the multi-million-dollar NGO industrial complex.

“About US $1 billion has been assigned to deal with Venezuelan migrants last year. Of this, the US claims to have delivered US $656 million between 2018 and 2019,” she said.

“Allegedly, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) use official data offered by recipient countries in their reports. I researched into this and in South America, the only governments sending data to these institutions are Colombia, Peru and Chile. The number of migrants in these three countries combined is less than 800,000, but international organisations claim that there are about 4 million Venezuelans abroad,” Barreto said.

Likewise, she added that to analyse Venezuelan emigration, one must consider the campaigns of xenophobia and the so-called refugee crisis. “According to the 2019 figures of Migration Colombia there were only 90 refugees, and in 2020, 140. Are these figures enough for a country to declare itself in a refugee crisis?” she asked.

The panelist also stated that xenophobia against Venezuelans has a cultural origin in Latin America linked to the ingrained classism of Colombian, Peruvian and Chilean [societies]. “This xenophobia threatens revolutionary internationalism. Furthermore, it has also been exacerbated by necessity: the pandemia is escalating and, in turn, disrupting the capitalist crisis. Now we’re talking about xenophobia between proletarians and proletarians.”

Daniella Inosoja: the situation of women in the new global context

Likewise on July 10 during the De-colonial Dialogues, anthropologist and member of [the Venezuelan feminist collective] Tinta Violeta, Daniella Inojosa talked about human trafficking. She explained that the business continues to be one of the most lucrative enterprises in the continent, in which richer countries demand and receive bodies to use and abuse through the sex trade, just as they did in the eighteenth century.

“Slavery and sexual slavery are methods of domination when territories are occupied or controlled. They look to further harm the people so as to suppress them. The huge trafficking which the African people suffered between the 15th and 19th centuries affected around 11 and 18 million people in the Indian and Atlantic ocean basins, respectively. These people were extracted from their families, from their origins, to be enslaved in the Americas,” she recounted.

Inojosa also commented that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported in 2018 that 21 million people continue to be trafficked globally.

“21 million people are trafficked worldwide. However, for every one case we know about, there are 20 more being trafficked that we don’t know about, so the tally is really closer to 400 million,” she said.

In connection with this, Inojosa asserted that most people taken from Africa are not trafficked for sexual exploitation but for forced labour. “In Latin America, however, those trafficked are 70 percent women and 50 percent adult women. 23 percent are girls, 17 percent are men and 10 percent are boys. In this calamity, women make up 73 percent and almost all for the purpose of being sexually exploited,” she added.

“In the Latin American region in the 1990s, the recruitment of women, adolescents and girls was, for a long time, focused on Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay. Colombia has also been a territory for trafficking for a long time, especially for the purposes of sexual exploitation,” Inojosa contextualised.

She also noted that popular destinations include Spain, the United States, the Netherlands, Germany and Russia, among others and to a greater or lesser degree. “Why is it easier to traffic to countries where prostitution is regarded as work? Because it allows traffickers to develop legal businesses like brothels and different enterprises close to the prostitution market.”

On the other hand, Inojosa, who is an anthropologist and feminist, observed that female victims of trafficking are ripped not only from their territory but also from their families. “When they arrive at their destination they are criminalised for being illegal, for having been stripped of their documents. These women suffer from sexist and patriarchal violence by pimps or other players.”

On the trafficking of women in Venezuela, she claimed that the country was not part of the recruitment or reception of people until 2013, but that, “All this has been reinforced by the [US-led economic] blockade and the economic crisis alongside the phenomenon of migration. Women are captured because they are poor, it is a class issue because they have economic needs.”

“From Tinta Violeta’s victim accompaniment unit we have recorded that the most common method used to traffic in Venezuela is to recruit girls through other girls who are convinced of the benefits of this type of life. Girls who have returned to their place of origin recruit others, generally by using fear and threats by this great mafia which sees our bodies as merchandise,” emphasised Inojosa.

Luis Navas: Venezuelan emigration in times of pandemia

During his presentation Venezuelan migration in times of pandemia on July 17, sociologist and social researcher for the [Venezuela human rights pressure group] SURES, Luis Navas, stressed that the pandemia’s confinement “has left many informal migrant workers without sources of income, accelerating the return of Venezuelan citizens to the country given the inability of some governments in the region to provide mass employment.”

To talk about Venezuelan migration, Navas addressed the economic and political context in the country. “Unilateral coercive measures against Venezuela, which are prohibited by international law, have created difficulties in the development of the private public sector. In addition to the effects that these measures have had on oil production, they have motivated emigration, which had been increasing since the 1980s and came in greater force from 1999 to 2003,” he said.

Navas also described the process of the migration of Venezuela’s professional technicians until 2015. “Now the coercive measures against the country undoubtedly result in poorer and less-trained people migrating to Colombia, Ecuador and Chile.”

“This context caused an increase in the displacement of a few million people. However not as many millions as some say. It must also be considered that a media campaign is being promoted by the UNHCR, that tends to inflate the number of migrants so as to justify larger budgets – a very common practice in Venezuela and other countries.”

Similarly, he pointed out that in the Venezuelan case, people from lower social strata who leave the country do not do so as refugees but rather as economic migrants. “This is what several studies, including the [Venezuelan university-based ] ENCOVI survey, have concluded,” he said.

In this context, “the UNHCR magically transforms migrant numbers into refugees to shock the world and justify their requests for humanitarian crisis budgets. We have governments trying to facilitate the arrival of Venezuelans in their country, and on the other hand UNHCR trying to prevent it with a media campaign against us,” Navas said.

Finally, he noted that at least 70,000 Venezuelans have returned to the country since 2019, which has been partly caused by informal employment and xenophobia abroad. “During the pandemic, the border closures in some neighbouring states have limited people’s movement, forcing them to take risky paths or to fall into human trafficking and illegal border crossings. However, their arrival back to Venezuela contradicts their supposed condition as refugees,” he clarified.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis